A beach in west London? Harvey McGavin reports on an early years centre that has transformed its playground with 55 tons of sand
For most schools in the capital, a trip to the seaside involves lots of organising, a two-hour coach ride - and no guarantee of good weather when you get there. But at the Randolph Beresford Early Excellence Centre in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, if it's sunny and they want to go to the beach, they just go outside.
The beach is the striking centrepiece of a pound;40,000 project to transform the playground of the school on the White City estate, which takes children between the ages of 18 months and five years. It's a built-up area - the 55 tons of sand for the beach had to be lifted by crane over a wall separating it from the surrounding blocks of flats - but the school has fairly large grounds, about the size of a football pitch and bordered by semi-mature trees. There's a single-storey school building running down one wing and a large playground next to it.
Before its makeover, the playground was a standard grass and tarmac layout, with three climbing frames and a sandpit barely big enough to swing a bucket and spade in. But that started to change last November, when outdoor education consultant Wendy Titman came to the school. Schools often ask Ms Titman, formerly with Learning Through Landscapes, a national charity dedicated to helping schools improve their grounds, and the author of Special Places, Special People, to "come and do the garden". But, she says, there are no quick-fix remedies to dull playgrounds, and special places don't just pop up overnight. They need to be nurtured.
"There's a whole process," she says. "It's not just, 'we'll do the garden this term' and next term its something else. They need to understand they are embarking on a long-term process that is never finished. If people don't go into it that way, it doesn't work."
She began by asking staff what memories they had of playing as children. Many of them, including acting deputy head Lisa Frank, recalled "dens and places rather than equipment and toys". Then someone remarked: "Isn't it a pity we can't have a beach."
Well, they got much more besides. The metre-deep silvery white sand on the beach is strewn with hardy grasses and, on sunny days, shade is supplied by canvas strung between the timber poles, which jut from the sand like a shipwreck. One corner of the garden has been left wild to encourage butterflies and birds, while at the other end - on a mound created by debris from the White City exhibition centre that once stood on the site - "mini-creatures" congregate under logpiles. A looping path, perfect for cycling, traverses the mound, and encourages a constant flow of learner riders. There are peaceful areas such as the mound covered in long grass and the playhouse nestling under the boughs of a tree, where children can go to daydream.
"When we talked to the children about the things they had that were already here, they had limited experiences and perhaps weren't able to say what they were missing," explains Ms Frank. "But one of the things they enjoyed most when we went on a day out to the park was just lying in the long grass."
There is a hand-cranked watermill and chute and a solar-powered fountain, which was an immediate success. "Within 10 minutes the kids had worked out that they could wait for the clouds to pass over the sun and then run the length of the playground in time to see it start," says Ms Titman. "It's great when those sort of things are discovered, not told." She is a strong believer in the ideas of nursery school pioneer Margaret McMillan, who believed children learn best when they spend as much time as possible out of doors. "People often talk about outside and inside as seamless. But there are things about the outside that are totally different - they make little journeys of discovery outside. Some activities, when they are done outside, achieve a different quality - music, for example, is very different outside. And the natural environment is constantly changing. You can go outside and see something different every day. Manufactured items have boredom built in."
Two of the three old climbing frames remain (the third was unsafe because of its splintering woodwork), but there are new attractions such as murals featuring "fish with attitude", and props such as a scarecrow and lighthouse that can be linked to stories. Dozens of shapes and textures have been incorporated into the garden and it's a measure of the variety and imagination used in the planting that children from Somalia and Nigeria have even recognised species from their home countries.
The under-threes have their own patch, incorporating the renovated sandpit and planted with lavenders, soft but spiky phormium and a bright blue allium in full flower. All these delicate plants are undamaged, proof that if you make a garden child-friendly rather than child-proof, children will look after it. "There are 144 children out there and you wouldn't believe it could be so well preserved," says headteacher Mary West. She has noticed a change in the children and in "the quality of the sound" that comes through her office window, a gentle buzz of activity. She says the garden has always seemed big (her daughter, now 22, recalls going on "journeys" from one end to the other) but had evolved in an "ad hoc sort of way" with bits of equipment being added as and when money was available.
The pound;40,000 lump sum from the Government's Early Excellence scheme has enabled the school to "introduce a whole new curriculum", with the emphasis on experience rather than equipment. The result, says Ms West, is "a children's paradise. My grandchildren beg me to bring them down here at the weekends, but I tell them I'm not going to work at the weekends."
Already the beach seems to be attracting other visitors - a seagull was recently spotted nesting on the roof of the flats opposite - but Ms Titman says the real custodians are the children. "School grounds are the only place that give some children regular access to the outdoors. I have seen children who are borderline agoraphobic at the age of four. Whoever would have thought we would have to persuade children to go outside. But inner-city kids won't know what half these things are if they don't see them in the garden.
"People have a great need to understand why these environments are so important. It needs big investment but the rewards will be enormous. You can urge parents and carers to take their children to use public spaces and parks but they have to take on dog-walkers, footballers and cyclists. This place belongs to the children."
'Special Places; Special People: the hidden curriculum of school grounds' by Wendy Titman is published by Southgate pound;16.95.Learning through Landscapes is based at: Third floor, Southside Offices, The Law Courts, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9DL. Tel: 01962 846258. Website: www.ltl.org.ukEmail: email@example.comWendy Titman can be contacted at: PO Box 283, Elton, Peterborough PE8 6SZ. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org